The Housing Scene by Lew Sichelman

Edible Landscaping Takes Hold

The farm-to-table movement, first popularized by restaurants and grocery stores wishing to showcase the freshness of their local ingredients and produce, is slowly gaining credence in residential real estate.

The trend is taking hold largely in the apartment market, where residents share in the bounty of a large garden plot that produces fruits and vegetables at no charge. In Northridge, California, for example, the Terrena complex features a produce garden just outside the leasing office, leaving a strong impression on would-be tenants.

But farming is also taking place on a smaller scale at individual houses -- often called farmscaping. In Culver City, California, one house has a front garden that, a decade ago, “would have risked censure from the city and neighbors,” says Dan Allen of Farmscape Gardens. The company built that yard’s gardens, and is the largest urban-farming venture in the Golden State.

Now, farmscaping is “a point of pride as water-wise landscaping is incentivized rather than rebuked,” Allen adds, “and bountiful harvests are shared with friends, family, colleagues and neighbors.”

The Farmscape CEO estimates that the 275 sites his company built and maintains on a weekly basis generate some 200,000 pounds of produce annually. And that does not count the 300-plus other sites it designed that are managed by others.

Most of the firm’s real estate-related gardens to date have been at commercial properties, such as the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium. The stadium’s rooftop farm provides fresh produce for facility staff and on-site restaurants on a daily basis.

But some developers are creating entire “agrihoods” -- neighborhoods built around a farm rather than a golf course. The concept isn’t new, says Allen, but it’s “starting to catch fire now with organic farms serving as the focal point.”

Last year, Farmscape did small raised-bed gardens at apartment properties owned by Prometheus, a leading multifamily company on the West Coast. It also did a quarter-acre garden consisting of an orchard and raised beds at Veterans Village near San Francisco, which occupants will maintain on their own.

Though the Oakland-based company is decidedly a California outfit, it is starting to break out to other parts of the country, consulting on projects in Nevada and Texas.

The company has competition, but the others “don’t do all we do,” says Lara Hermanson, another Farmscape principal. “We design and consult and help with entitlements. Then we construct, maintain and propagate.”

Working with developers and their architects from the conceptual stage, the company can integrate orchard trees, food beds and, space and climate permitting, even vineyards. It even attends zoning hearings to garner community support for a sometimes unwanted development, and, in cases where it is not hired to manage the gardens, it works with residents and volunteer gardeners to make sure the agrihood thrives.

Residents aren’t always looking to become full-time farmers, so only a handful of communities take on the work of tending to their edible landscaping, Hermanson says. “In most cases, I’m the farmer in perpetuity.”

Typically, a small community-wide garden would consist of eight to 10 raised beds, a half-dozen orchard trees and some mulching, Hermanson says. Larger gardens would include more sizable orchards, row crops and ornamental plantings.

Gardens like these don’t come cheaply. A few raised vegetable and fruit beds and some hardscaping in just a quarter of a typical backyard can run up to $5,000. For the “whole shebang,” says Hermanson, a homeowner might spend upwards of $30,000 for a 2,500-square-foot garden. And some estimate that homeowners have spent close to $100,000 on their gardens.

A big planned unit development might also go to $100k or more for a 5- to 7-acre mini-farm. But according to Hermanson, “that’s in line with normal landscaping costs -- and often cheaper.”

Developers, especially those doing small sites, will often feature their gardens as the main amenity. And some larger builders are putting in “farmettes” in place of far more expensive golf courses and swimming pool complexes.

Developers are finding that “golf courses are not getting used,” says Hermanson. “Not everybody plays, but everybody eats.”

Edward McMahon, a Senior Fellow for Sustainable Development at the Urban Land Institute (ULI), says food is “providing a growing arena for innovation in real estate.”

“Growing, processing and selling food ... can pay big dividends for savvy developers as well as for consumers, communities and the environment,” says McMahon, who led a session on the topic at ULI’s fall meeting last year.

Of course, homeowners pay for the gardens as part of the homeowner’s association fees, just like they do for their pool complexes, golf courses and other amenities. Farmscape charges $700 to $1,500 a month to maintain a small garden, and $12,000 to $15,000 monthly to manage a high-end garden with a 200-tree orchard.

But there are payoffs. While a decently landscaped lot can boost a property’s value by 6 percent to 7 percent, according to a National Association of Realtors report, edible landscaping can pump up values by 28 percent. Also, well-designed gardens not only filter air pollutants, they can help cool homes during the summer and serve as wind blocks in the winter.